3D Printers and Drug Legalization

In a recent American Thinker article, I wrote on some of the problems surrounding calls for legalizing the drug ecstasy. In general, my view is that the traditional libertarian perspectives on this topic are naive, and not grounded in a proper analysis of the complex negative externalities that arise from drug legalization.

In both the comments to this article, and in a recent piece from the National Post in Canada, drug legalization proponents have raised the issue of 3D printing, and how this possible future technology revolution "will have rendered the drug war obsolete."

There is some confusion in these arguments that needs to be addressed, in large part from a failure by some to understand how synthetic chemistry works.

Jesse Kline states that 3D printers "could also be used by party-goers to print their own ecstasy, or hippies who want to synthesize LSD in their basements... If people were able to download an open-source design for a molecule that they knew was tested and pure, it would make the drugs a lot safer, and take organized criminals out of the equation."

We must separate and consider the following two key points:

• The relative ease by which we can construct 3D shapes with 3D printers using some form of generic polymer or other compound whose starting and/or final chemical identity is of little concern, but whose material properties (e.g., hardness, plasticity, tensile strength, etc.) meet some requisite threshold.

• The tremendous difficulty in synthesizing pure compounds, even when pure precursor materials are employed.

There is a great deal of justifiable hype surrounding the first point and 3D printing. Conversely, while it is difficult to predict where 3D printing will evolve to -- and how fast -- the 3D chemical printing proponents may have the cart miles ahead of the horse.

If we print a gun using a 3D printer and some type of polymer, it is generally irrelevant if there are minor impurities in the solid material comprising the finished gun so long as these impurities do not significantly diminish the required material properties of the weapon. In other words, who cares if 0.1% of the gun is made up of compounds from undesirable side reactions in the synthesis and forming process, provided the gun still meets basic physical criteria and can be safely fired?

It is the complete opposite for chemical synthesis. The physical properties of a 3D printed drug are irrelevant -- do you care if the drug comes out of the printer as a nice, solid, hard tablet, or in powder form, or in some glob of mush? No... you only care that the drug is chemically pure.

To synthesize a drug that can be directly consumed using a 3D printer, you need two key capabilities in the machine: (1) the synthesis chamber whereby the required starting materials are mixed and reacted; and (2) the purification apparatus whereby all impurities are removed, leaving only the pure product (be it LSD, ecstasy, etc.).We must remember that we cannot just convert any chemical precursors into any desired end product. So we must be able to buy purified precursors that are specific to the particular compound we want to make.

But even ultra-trace impurities in synthesized compounds can cause severe -- often fatal -- negative health impacts when ingested. That is how we get "bad batches" of drugs. For those who have some knowledge of organic chemistry, you know how difficult it is (read: effectively impossible) to directly synthesize a pure final compound from pure starting materials. Much of organic chemistry (and the pharmaceutical industry is notable in this regard) is devoted as much to compound purification as it is to synthesis. It is often trivial (and cheap) to produce the impure mixture from starting materials, and generally extremely challenging (and expensive) to purify the impure product.

The requirement to miniaturize complex purification strategies (which are very often highly compound specific) at low cost for a 3D printer may prove to be a major stumbling block. We shouldn't get too excited by watching the futuristic 3D chemical printing self-promotion on TED Talks quite yet.

The legal concerns over 3D printing have also been raised -- and rightly so -- in the media. Just take the gun issue. There are members of society that we do not want to own and use guns -- convicted violent offenders come to mind. But if anyone can go to the local electronics store and buy a cheap 3D printer (say, at the same cost thereabouts as an inkjet printer) and the materials to print a working gun and ammunition, this undermines our entire regulatory structure in a single step. If we don't regulate 3D printers, then anyone (be it a 14-year old or younger with some modest disposable income, or a violent criminal) can print themselves a gun. And since 3D printers will undoubtedly be capable of printing many objects (i.e., more than just guns), I wish good luck to those attempting to regulate 3D printers in any form. How will we know whether the purchaser wants to print guns and ammunition? or print toys for their children?

Does this leave us with the need to ban some 3D printers from general sales to the public? Who knows, maybe. Or maybe some 3D printers will need to have some form of restriction on their printing capabilities in order to prevent the production of regulated/prohibited materials such as guns? This is problematic as well, since all software systems can be hacked. And it would seem to be even more difficult to restrict the physical printing capacity of 3D printers such that the machine allows printing of a legal object that is very closely shaped to an illegal object, but prevent production of the latter.

Bringing this back to the topic of drug production, let us assume that one day we somehow develop the capacity to print whatever pure drugs you want at home using your 3D printer. In order for 3D printing of drugs to displace the black market, the drugs produced by 3D printers must be cheaper than can be bought on the black market (or at least competitive -- since there is value in avoiding "bad batches" on the black market). That means the 3D printer drugs must be cheap, as the current black market prices are very low -- even teenagers working part-time at minimum wage can support significant drug habits.

So, my question to the drug legalization proponents is as follows: how do we deal with this social nightmare? Are we going to have age restrictions on purchasing and using 3D printers and their input materials? What is to stop youth from printing and consuming massive quantities of very cheap drugs, thereby increasing youth drug consumption rates far beyond what they currently are? Do you not see a potential societal collapse arising from this? I do.

For these reasons, 3D printing will likely pose one of the most challenging legal issues of our time. While I am not generally supportive of further layers of bureaucratic regulation and legal restrictions, I have yet to see the legalization and 3D printing proponents offer any rational propositions for how these basic concerns can be mitigated.

Dr. Sierra Rayne writes regularly onenvironment, energy, and national security topics. He can be found on Twitter at @rayne_sierra.